This is one of the most common compliments I hear about top fighters, but it is also one of the most inaccurate. Most top fighters do not have reaction speed any greater than that of the average player. Some are even slower than average. Yet the perception of “so fast” persists. There are a number of reasons for this. Today we’ll look at the first one.
What may be the largest factor in this perception of speed, ironically, has to do with speed of perception. As a fighter becomes more skilled, they are able to perceive more information about their opponent more quickly. As a fighter grows more practiced, he builds up a “language” of body movements. By “chunking” the individual information components of opponent position, muscle movement, and balance into the “words” of this language, the fighter is able to rapidly process and understand a large body of information. Whereas a novice unschooled in this language might have to read the individual letters of “elbow lift”, “slight torso rotation”, “sword shoulder pulled to the inside”, “hand back”, “weight shift”, and a host of other letters, the experience fighter reads “beginning to high cross.”
This is something well documented in all areas of expertise. Chess players learn to read boards so that they can instantly recognize a pattern of play. (1) Tennis players learn to read opponent position to predict where a return will land. (2) Mostly, this is a subconscious learning process that the expert cannot easy verbally express to those who do not have the language. To demonstrate the utility of this type of language building, there is a classic example from natural language. Consider the letters “oeos ni mts tmhh eaglndse“. Without looking back, how many do you remember, in order? You don’t have a “language” for that. Now consider the letters “glen is the most handsome“. Now how many letters can you list off, in order? All of them. Because you have a “language” for that that let you chunk the data into manageable chunks. Same letters. Fighters have, over much time, built up a language of movement that they’re reading when they face an opponent.
There are a number of important implications of this language. The first one is that, the better someone knows the language, the less information to have to provide to convey a message. This is due to the anticipatory nature of expert perception. (3) Because the expert has tools for chunking their perceptions into manageable numbers of data elements and they have an ability to predict what the message will be. As a side effect of this, they will focus on the area where they expect new activity or information to occur. In fighting, better fighters understand the language of fighting better, so they can predict what the message will be with less information. Which letters are missing from this: “sf_e l_ _j as_i” How about now: “jle_ i_ s_ fas_“? Having the language makes it easier to get meaning before all the information is in.
A second implication is that the anticipatory nature of expert perception makes is susceptible to being misled. When you are trying to sell a feint to another fighter, the better the fighter the more minimal the feint has to be. It also can make it easier to sell fakes in some cases. If you’ve heard “jlee is so fast!” enough times, you’re going to jump to that conclusion when you see “____ i_ so ____!“, when this time I was tricking you and the message is “tato is so huge!“.
The logical question from those seeking to join the ranks of top fighters is, “how do I learn this language?” The answer is simple: effort and immersion. First, the student of this language must make an active effort to learn it if they want to accelerate their learning. Focus on why your opponent is doing as well as what they are doing. Make an effort to predict your opponent. Fight in a manner that requires you to predict your opponent’s actions, as opposed to the manner that just lets you “win.” Talk to your opponent about what happened and what they did and what you noticed them doing. Expert instruction that highlights key aspects of reading an action can also be extremely beneficial.
Second, do a great deal of fighting. Developing proficiency in reading this language will take thousands of hours of practice. Just being told about it is not sufficient (4), and too much explicit instruction can impose a cognitive load that can actually decrease performance. (5) In simpler terms, if you give people too much to think about they’ll botch it because they spent too much time thinking instead of doing. Guided practice is the best approach. Lots and lots of guided practice. However, it is still important to ensure that you have the fundamentals of fighting down before you start trying to work on your perceptual skills. (6)
Top fighters are not particularly faster in reaction time or movement speed than other players. They are benefitting from superior skill. Foremost among those skills is an ability to rapidly perceive and anticipate what their opponent is doing. This is due to the expert having built up a “language” that allows them to process information about the opponent’s movements in a smaller number of easy-to-process “chunks” of information, rather than having to process every element of the opponent’s action separately, which would impose an impossible cognitive load. Developing this language is the result of long hours of exposure and effort at reading an opponent. This development can be accelerated through the use of guided learning with an expert who can highlight key cues as the student practices perception and action.
(1) Chase, William G., and Herbert A. Simon. “Perception in chess.” Cognitive psychology 4.1 (1973): 55-81.
(2) Shim, Jaeho, et al. “The use of anticipatory visual cues by highly skilled tennis players.” Journal of motor behavior 37.2 (2005): 164-175.
(3) Ferrari, Vincent, André Didierjean, and Evelyne Marmeche. “Dynamic perception in chess.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 59.2 (2006): 397-410.
(4) Williams, A. Mark, et al. “Developing anticipation skills in tennis using on-court instruction: Perception versus perception and action.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 16.4 (2004): 350-360.
(5) Smeeton, Nicholas J., et al. “The relative effectiveness of various instructional approaches in developing anticipation skill.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 11.2 (2005): 98.
(6) Ward, Paul, and A. Mark Williams. “Perceptual and cognitive skill development in soccer: The multidimensional nature of expert performance.” Journal of sport and exercise psychology 25.1 (2003): 93-111.